I reread it every year or so. I blogged about it thrice between 2009 and 2011. So why read it again? Why not read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest? Wouldn’t that be more relevant to the culture?
To what culture? I really don’t know to what literary culture I belong. Certainly I don’t belong to English or American culture. I suppose I belong to Dickens’ culture. At least when I read Bleak House.
It is Dickens’s bicentenary, and Bleak House is a masterpiece.
Bleak House is one of Dickens’ darkest and most complex novels. If you can’t bear the dark, if you can’t bear the fog, if you can’t bear pestilent graveyards, if you can’t bear never-ending court cases that sour hopes and dreams, you’ll be lost in Bleak House. The double narrative is gracefully split between an omniscient narrator’s observations of a nightmare of litigation at Chancery, and the personal response of the intelligent, lovely character Esther Summerson, who, along with two wards of court, Richard and Ada, lives at Bleak House with the benevolent John Jarndyce, who has rejected the Chancery case. Esther is Ada’s companion and becomes the housekeeper of Bleak House.
Dickens interlaces the web of his dark satirical plot, which focuses on the bankrupting of legal suitors in a long-drawn-out Chancery case, with many honed, humorous portraits of characters rich and poor, charming or grotesque, heroic or villainous, related however distantly to suitors in the Jarndyce and Jarncyce.
In this nightmare world, there is yet some redemption. Orphans, bachelors, spinsters, elderly eccentrics, childless men and women, mad women, and the rootless try hard to form makeshift families and struggle for a place in the world. Few of the characters come from traditional nuclear families; indeed, it may be a disadvantage to be raised in a nuclear family. Look at the Jellybys’ chaotic children; look at the rebellious Pardiggle children. There are stronger ties in adoptive families than in nuclear families– John Jarndyce’s adoptive family being the model. His little group is garnered from orphans, but on the periphery are children of abusive, or neglectful parents or guardians–and they coalesce very quickly as a group.
Esther Summerson, whose lovely first-person narrative (“Esther’s Narrative”) is at the heart of the novel, is raised by a godmother who refuses to tell her the details of her parentage. She devastates Esther by saying she would have been better off unborn. Yet Esther, the most stable, filial character of all, grows up to be a beloved teacher and then the beloved housekeeper at Bleak House. There is no one’s voice I like better than Esther’s. She is perceptive, merry, cheerful, realistic, and strong. She is the center of a group of orphans–Ada, Richard, Charley, and Jo. And she makes things better for them.
I’ve read the book three times now and each time dislike the depiction of Mrs Jellyby more and more. I see it as seriously unfair and unreal….No one would live in the house that is depicted; no one could have children like that — it’s a gross exaggeration. A woman who was a philanthropist for real would be out networking and not endlessly pregnant.”
“In doing a little research I ran across article arguing that if Dickens were alive today he’d probably be writing soap operas, and I completely agree.”